Is Olympic Nudity a Feminist Victory?

15/08/2016 8:40 PM IST | Updated 15/08/2016 9:29 PM IST

With women making up 45% of all competitors and a record high of 47.5% of events open to female athletes, this year's Olympic Games in Rio is closer to achieving gender equality than ever before, according to data from the International Olympic Committee. However, as the deluge of sexist coverage of women's events attests to, near-equal representation in numbers has not resulted in even near-equal quality of representation for male and female athletes.

When a recent study by Cambridge University Press found that language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on their appearance, clothes and personal lives, I wasn't surprised. The sexualisation of female athletes and their bodies within the male-dominated institution of sports media is just one way in which gender inequality persists despite women's increasing participation in sports. But feminism has fought back, and it has been encouraging to hear powerful, articulate, feminist voices (both female and male) denounce uninvited sexualisation (like when Fox News called a man-council to discuss athletes' make-up wearing habits) and call out sexist commentary (like how triple world record holder, gold medallist 400m freestyle swimmer Katie Ledecky has been referred to as "the female Michael Phelps", and fellow Olympians Ryan Lochte and Connor Jaeger have been quoted saying "This girl is doing respectable times for guys" and "Her stroke is like a man's stroke. I mean that in a positive way. She swims like a man.")

But feminism is not a single, unified perspective and certain topics are particularly divisive. With female nudity being one of them, I became increasingly interested in how some female athletes have posed naked in order to reclaim their bodies, not as objects to be scrutinized through a misogynist media lens, but as a powerful, perhaps even empowering, way of celebrating the capabilities of the female body. The rise of self-defined nudity by female athletes (such as appearing in ESPN The Body Issue or Women's Health Naked Issue) as a means of self-promotion and social commentary left me with a host of questions about the role of the naked female athlete within the feminist and Olympic movements.

The ancient and androcentric history of athletic nudity may seem far-removed from the modern and potentially feminist context in which female athlete nudity occurs today. But if, as historian Donald Kyle writes in his book Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, "In Archaic Greece, disrobing fully to become naked for sport became an assertive communication of maleness, ethnicity, status, freedom, privilege and physical virtue", then this history is entirely relevant to how we understand the current proliferation of prominent images of naked Olympians. In 2014, feminist writer Soraya Chemaly argued persuasively that exposing the world to non-sexualised, and in particular, non-idealised, female nudity is important for challenging sexist and racist attitudes towards women. But Chemaly was not writing about naked athletes, and I found myself questioning whether female athletic nudity operated sufficiently far outside of the socially approved, sexualised contents, to which she refers, to be able to challenge these norms.

Is the increased visibility of naked female athletic bodies transforming the concept of contemporary femininity? I'm not so sure. It has been argued that photographs of naked female Olympians challenge the traditionally masculine and Eurocentric visuals in sports media, and the traditionally feminine and Eurocentric beauty ideals perpetuated in fashion magazines, but for the most part, these images reinforce idealised femininity and only minimally disrupt normative gender roles. In order to prove that their bodies are not so far outside the patriarchal conception of desirability after all, female athletes often accentuate feminine qualities so as to emphasize a specifically heterosexual persona.

But definitions of femininity are racialised and so notions of appropriate femininity are different for white and non-white female athletes. Since black female athletic prowess is frequently attributed to masculine qualities of strength, power, and aggression, and sex appeal has long been reserved for white women, in her book Out of Bounds: Racism and the Black Athlete, Lori Latrice Martin argues that black female athletes must erase race in order to capitalise on athletic sexuality. When media coverage of world-class athletes like Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Simone Manuel emphasizes their femaleness and blackness (like when Merecury News tweeted "Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American" after the US female swimmer won gold) at the expense of a meaningful discussion of their medal-winning performances, the intersection of sexism and racism is all too apparent. After claiming a historic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle as the first African American female swimmer to take gold in an individual event, Simone Manuel told USA Today: "I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not 'Simone the black swimmer.' The title of black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that's not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else."

When blackness, physicality and strength push black female athletes to the margins of acceptable femininity, images of naked black female athletes are marked by both race and gender. The appearance of Claressa Shields, who competed at the London 2012 Games to become the first American female boxer to win a gold medal, in ESPN 2016 The Body Issue challenges racialised and sexualised representations of nudity. Shields explains: "With me doing Body, I wanted my pictures to show my beautiful side and also add to the definition of a strong woman. A woman like myself, people often say 'She's too tough, she's too strong,' and there is no such thing." In these photographs, Shields incorporates strength, aggression and toughness in her female identity, and in doing so, redefines femininity and black womanhood through the celebration of her naked black female athletic body.

Whilst athletes may value their bodies primarily for what they can do, the media focus on what athletic bodies look like transforms them into objects of desire. When five members of Team GB Women's Rugby Sevens posed naked for Women's Health Naked Issue, centre Amy Wilson-Hardy acknowledged: "I train to win, but a lean and defined body in the mirror is a bonus." Despite the fact that fit, healthy and Olympic-medal-winning bodies come in all shapes and sizes, the cultural equation of physical attractiveness (in particular, leanness) with physical fitness is strengthened by the media's depiction of lean, muscular physiques as the embodiment of female athleticism. Objectification continues to define femininity, and fetishizing strong, muscular bodies contributes to this.

Whilst the potentially harmful effects of "thinspo" (images of ultra-thin bodies which serve as weight-loss 'inspiration') are widely documented, less is known about the impact of "fitspo" (images of ultra-fit bodies posted with the intention of inspiring people to exercise and diet). A study in 2012 investigated how young women feel when they see sexualised or sports-focused images of female athletes by comparing their responses to three sets of images: (1) female athletes in a sporting context in their full sporting attire, (2) female athletes in sexualised contexts with lots of flesh on display, or (3) images of models in bikinis.

Young women responded positively to the images of performance athletes, viewing these women as capable and talented athletes who encouraged their own participation in sports, but the images of sexualised female athletes did not generate this commentary. Instead, images of sexualised athletes generated a very similar response to the images of sexualised models; the young women commented extensively on the appearance and sexiness of the women's bodies and viewed their own bodies negatively in comparison. The author, Elizabeth Daniels suggests that images of sexualised athletes "are no more likely to prompt viewers to reflect on their own physical activity involvement or appreciation of sport than sexualised model images". This is echoed in a 2015 study on the psychological effects of fitness advertising on female collegiate athletes which found that the young women valued authenticity and wanted to see professional athletes in action so that they could become motivated by their abilities rather than their appearance.

However, earlier this year, one of the UK's fastest growing international lingerie brands, Bluebella, launched the 'Be Strong Be Beautiful' campaign in response to research that showed many girls drop out of sports after the age of 13 due to body image concerns and fears that they will be perceived as unfeminine. The campaign features three Team GB athletes - windsurfer Bryony Shaw, skeet shooter Amber Hill, and Paralympic long-jumper Stefanie Reid - posing in sexy lingerie in order to demonstrate that their physical strength does not detract from their sex appeal. According to the campaign website: "The biggest misconception is that female athletes are tomboys, their physical strength makes them unfeminine, they don't fit into the mould of 'the pretty girl'". However, when thin, white, conventionally attractive female athletes explicitly promote and play into a glamorous and sexualised notion of femininity, the system that defines what is considered desirable remains unchallenged.

Media discourses about women's bodies, even those that claim to celebrate strength, athleticism and self-possession, are sites of pernicious and contradictory messages that tell us to "love our bodies" whilst also providing powerful exhortations to exercise, diet and pursue new forms of idealised athletic femininity. Bluebella's Be Strong Be Beautiful campaign states: "We believe vehemently in freedom of choice", but it soon transpires it is specifically "the choice to train hard, to sweat, to scream" that the campaign endorses. Similarly, the cover of Women's Health Naked Issue, which purports to include important messages on body confidence from the (naked) GB women's rugby sevens team, also promotes a "28-DAY RESCULPT PLAN" that promises to "TORCH FAT FOR GOOD!". It also proposes "4 WAYS TO RUN YOUR BELLY OFF", whilst asking readers: "WHEN DID WE ALL GET SO ANXIOUS?". In Daniels' 2012 study, the young women responded to the images of sexualised athletes with a number of critiques about the objectification of women, expressing frustration and offense at the media's depiction of female athletes as aesthetic objects, and the athlete's willingness to participate in these photoshoots. So although the financial and social rewards afforded to female athletes who pose naked may be experienced as empowering on an individual level, they are not necessarily advancing the goal of gender equality for women more widely.

One of the most interesting findings of Daniels' study was that sexualised athletes were more likely to be described as representing a female "ideal" than the sexualised models, which suggests that yes, images of naked female athletes are part of a cultural transformation of the concept of femininity. However, the new valuation of female athleticism may represent yet another unattainable cultural ideal, creating new pressures for women to pursue a body that is both high performing and sexually attractive. Perhaps the bodies of sexualised female athletes are idealised because they represent a postfeminist fantasy of women who have achieved the feminist goals of professional success, self-determination and autonomy whilst retaining their mainstream sex appeal. In this entanglement of aesthetics and athletics, it seems that images of naked female Olympians may in fact sustain and perpetuate the pervasive sexism in sport.

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